28 October 2016
I’m just back from a holiday in Canada. The leaves were glorious there and in Upstate New York, and I returned with three cans of Tim Horton’s coffee, which will get me through much of the coming winter. As every Canadian knows, there is no better coffee anywhere, and don’t get me started on their donuts…
On the way home to Maryland, I returned again to the little town of Gettysburg, and visited the world-famous battlefield. Gettysburg is a place you really must visit, because not only is the countryside beautiful, but REAL history happened here. The National Park Service has preserved the area incredibly well, and that preservation continues to this day. They deserve great credit for it, and most folks know little about it, thinking more about their mission protecting areas of great beauty, instead of areas of important history.
The battlefield looks much as it did on that warm, humid, July day in 1863, before the decisive battle of the Civil War. One reason they are able to preserve it so well, is due to the then young science of photography. Some of the best photographers of the day, recognized the importance of capturing the civil war for coming generations, and the National Park Service has used those images, and modern science (in all its forms) to make it possible to visit a battlefield of over 150 years ago, and see it almost as it was then.
I visited on this past Tuesday (25 October) and It was one of those brilliant autumn afternoons that stick in your memory for years. It was as James Taylor wrote “I’ve seen sunny days that you thought would never end”. With a cool gusty wind, and vibrant autumn color, I walked across the field where George Pickett and his men made their famous charge, then later I strolled down through the trees on Little Round Top, where Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the Union, and freed a people. He earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for it, and If you think I’m overstating it a bit, then you don’t know enough of what happened there.
When the monument to his men of the 20th Maine was dedicated 126 years ago this month, he attended, and ended his speech with these words:
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.
On a chilly, blustery, sparkling autumn afternoon in October 2016, the presence abides still.
You may have seen this famous image from the rocks of “Devil’s Den” (see below) . It was taken just a couple of days after the battle (on July 6, 1863), and probably posed somewhat by the photographers working for Alexander Gardner. The gun almost certainly was placed in the picture, and the dead confederate soldier was likely a sharp shooter firing on the men defending the hill called Little Round Top.
Below is the same spot, on 25 October of 2016. Rocks do not change much in 153 years.
Ted Turner’s movie about the battle that was fought here (Gettysburg) is one of the most accurate films about the battle you can find, and if you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend it. The movie was based on the book “The Killer Angels“, and is the longest film ever released in American theaters, but it took time to tell the story right. Turner lost money on it, but he left future generations a grand re-creation of the battle that saved the Union. A lot of scientists work for the Nat. Park Service, and after spending some time at a place like Gettysburg, you gain a real appreciation for what they and the rest of the folks who protect our national treasures do so well.
So, to the ranger who told the incredible story of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry to us earlier this month, and to the Ranger who walked with me through the cliff palaces in Mesa Verde, or to those who discovered that old rock wall at Gettysburg was stacked up by the soldiers, and still stands:
I say thank you.
Note: In many movies and descriptions of the battle, it is often portrayed as very hot, but there are reliable and accurate temperature records from Gettysburg during the battle that show it was 87 degrees (F) and partly cloudy at the time of Pickett’s charge. It was cooler than that during the other events of the battle. Still, wearing a wool uniform and carrying a heavy pack and rifle under a hot July sun, would be very uncomfortable.
History note for students: The three chief causes of the Civil War were slavery, slavery, and slavery. If someone tells you otherwise, they are disagreeing with virtually every expert historian. 620,000 people lost their lives in that war. A civil war with that percentage of casualties today would be a death toll of over 6 million Americans. The last veteran of that battle survived until 1940, but I wonder often if the high cost of hate and bigotry have now faded too far into our past to act as a proper deterrent…